“Strange as it sounds, most food that’s thrown out by stores is still safe to eat if you clean it and cook it appropriately.”
-Dr. Ruth Kava, American Council on Science and Health (as quoted in the NY Daily News, 2/13/06)
There’s no reason to assume that simply because a store has discarded food that it is unsafe to eat. Many stores bag all discarded items and don’t mix food and nonfood items, so contamination from non-food sources may not be a concern. A bag filled with unwrapped bread or fruit may be no more dangerous than the loaf of bread on our countertop or the fruit bowl at the center of our table. In cold temperatures, items bagged outside a store may be no worse off than those on its shelves.
Meat, daily, fish, and eggs carry serious risks whether purchased in a store or recovered outside of it. These items require special care in all weather and should be properly handled and cooked thoroughly. Dumpster diving plant-based items that have been discarded by stores is probably safer than a buying animal products from the shelf and bringing them home. However, someone who salvages discarded meat items in cold weather and handles and cooks them appropriately may be no worse off than a meat buyer.
Dent & Bent
According to USDA and other sources, it’s okay to eat the food from dented cans, as long as the dent isn’t sharp enough to have pierced the can or isn’t on the seams that run down the side or around the top and bottom, or deep enough to stress the seams. In fact, there are stores that specialize in selling “dent and bent” groceries; see http://tightwadsurvivalguide.com/discountfood.aspx
Product dating is not required by federal regulations and varies by state to state. “Sell by” or “use by” dates are NOT safety dates. They tend to denote manufacturers’ recommendation to retailers on how long to keep items on store shelves, or by when to be eaten for best flavor. Properly stored, unopened fresh (refrigerated) packaged foods can typically be eaten safely for days after these dates have passed, and dried or canned goods for considerably longer. Some good tips here: http://stilltasty.com/articles/view/5
“Front of store” food safety concerns
According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), food causes an estimated 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year. Health hazards such as Salmonella (factory farmed eggs), E. coli O157:H7 (a mutation found overwhelmingly in factory farmed animals), viruses and prions are more and more common. Corporate grown fruits and vegetables aren’t immune, as we’ve seen from virus, e. coli and salmonella outbreaks linked to sprouts, spinach, melons, cucumbers potatoes and hot peppers. And the deadliest pathogens come from the more than 90% of our food supply that is corporate engineered, grown, processed and transported, sold by huge supermarkets and carried home in the family SUV. See interviews with Dr. Michael Greger here and here.
The answers for truly safe food? Eat organically grown, non-GMO food from low on the food chain (fruits, veg, grains and beans) grown by small, local gardeners and farmers; eat wild foods (weeds rule!!); and practice good food hygiene, storage and preparation.
Freegan Food Safety Tips by Dr. Michael Greger, MD, including notes on “sell by” and “use by”.
Sell-By and Use-By Dates Definitions and recommendations from the USDA, very conservative.